A future lost: Vidalia teen ‘born good,’ dies too early

Published 12:10 am Sunday, January 31, 2010

VIDALIA — Grief has a way of working in ebbs and flows.

It’s been one month, 14 days and an endless stream of seconds since 16-year-old Storm Cangemi died, and when his parents Paul and Missy speak of him, they still alternate between smiles of pride and pushing back tears, choking on words when they talk about the potential he had.

He was the sophomore class president. He never made anything less than an “A” on his report card. He was religious, and atypically obedient and respectful.

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“He was born good. I always said, ‘There is no way we taught him to be this good,’” Paul said, Missy nodding in agreement.

“I never gave the child a curfew because if I had he would have always been home early,” she said.

On the night of Dec. 16, Storm spent the evening with his parents, talking about buying a new truck, joking about how he needed a vehicle built for hauling his pet birds around. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Leaving to go to bed, he told his parents goodnight, and that he loved them. In his bedroom, he called his girlfriend, talked for a while and got into an argument, normal teen stuff. The night passed quietly.

In the morning, he was dead by self-inflicted means.

It was a reaction the Cangemis still struggle to understand.

“The only think I can think of why he would do it was that Storm was all heart,” Paul said. “When he loved something, he loved it with all his heart.”

“The only blind spot in his life was when he walked up those stairs and got on the phone.”

An unusual life

Storm was, by his parents’ accounting, not normal.

He was a talented artist, a decent athlete, smart. But his real passion was in collecting exotic birds. He even refused to join sports teams because practice would take away from his ability to care for his birds.

It started with raising chickens at a local farm. Then someone gave him ducks. From there it blossomed to peacocks, pheasants, swans, emus and even rarer birds such as bleeding heart doves. He had a pot-bellied pig — Bella, who he raised from a piglet — that guarded his birds once he moved them to his family’s Vidalia property.

He was constantly buying and selling birds on the Internet, always wanting birds other people didn’t have.

“It got to be a kind of a ritual at the post office,” Missy said. “When I would get there, they would say, ‘Well, I can see that Storm has been ordering some birds again.’”

His bird operation was completely self-supported, and he was adamant that he be the only one who did the work for it. He worked odd jobs to pay for everything, and — with a little help from his father — built a barn-sized aviary with a deep pond in it to house his animals in the backyard. The only things his parents paid for were the water and electricity that were needed.

He would always go to bed early so that he would have time to check on and care for his birds before school.

“Whenever the grass in front (of the aviary) would get tall, he would say, ‘I need some diesel so I can cut the grass.’ He hated it if everybody couldn’t see back there,” Missy said.

His parents knew Storm was actively involved in the bird-trading world, but the extent of his involvement wasn’t clear to them until after his death.

A news release on the Game Birds and Waterfowl Organization Web site called his death, “A tragic loss in aviculture,” and stated that while many of the organization’s members knew and liked Storm through their dealings, only a few actually knew he was 16.

“We’ve gotten cards from all across the country,” Missy said. “We even got one where they said a Mass for him in Florida because the priest had had some kind of dealing with birds with him before.”

Life after loss

After any death, fragments of the person who is gone linger — old photographs, trinkets they collected, unfolded laundry — all reminders that in the spaces between the fragments is a loss-sized hole.

The family has a table of photographs in the living room, can still access his MySpace page and can even see his features in the faces of their two other children, but the biggest physical reminder Storm left was his aviary.

Mixing a bucket of seed and other birdfeed, Paul said the first time he ever fed the birds was after Storm died.

“At first, I was so angry about having to do this,” Paul said. “I would fuss and rage and say, ‘This was Storm’s thing, not mine.’ But now it’s something I can do to remember him.”

The family has been asked if they were going to sell the birds, but Missy said that as long as the birds are healthy, they’re going to keep them.

“We put a bench out here (in the aviary) and would watch Storm while he fed them, and now keeping them is a way to be close to him,” she said.

While living with loss, the family has seen the death reverberate through the community over and over.

The day Storm died, dozens if not hundreds of teenagers made pilgrimages to the family’s front yard. His funeral was at the Vidalia Conference and Convention Center, and was attended by a standing-room only crowd. People have made memorials to churches, playgrounds, even scholarship funds in Storm’s name. One teenager asked for permission and followed through by printing a large “In Memory of Storm Cangemi” sticker for his vehicle’s back glass.

“Yesterday was the first day for him to have it on his truck, and of course I ended up behind it,” Missy said. “I pulled up and told him that I love him for it.”

Wednesday, she received a shipment of orange bracelets that say, “In Loving Memory: Storm Cangemi.” They’re to be distributed at the Vidalia schools and to the community.

“I have been contacted by so many people, they all want something, a piece of him, something to remember him by,” Missy said.

Through all of this, so many questions, so many what-ifs remain, Paul said.

What if the family had never moved to Vidalia? What if they had never bought Storm a cell phone? What if they had checked on him that night?

“Before this, I categorized people into groups of those who would have done what he did, and those who wouldn’t, and I would have clearly placed Storm in the second group,” Paul said. “He just blew me away. Sometimes I still wonder if someone didn’t break into my house and do this to my baby.”

The couple has found a support group for people who have lost children, and it is one of the ways they have been able to deal with the gravity of the situation.

“People want to talk and say that they know how we feel, but this is a case where, unless you have been where we have been, you just can’t know how we feel,” she said.

In the time since she buried her son, Missy said she has learned that there is no such thing as coping — only living breath by breath.

“We are still breathing, making it one day to the next, and by the grace of God we are raising our other children,” she said. “It’s one of the worst things that can happen to a parent.”